Ice Network

Wagner, shaky Gold to square off at Skate America

Shibutanis opt for late season debut; Rippon, Brown take on quad toe
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Ashley Wagner hopes to be in top form when she takes the ice at Skate America. -Getty Images

Japan Open, held Oct. 1 in Saitama City, showed what starkly different places Ashley Wagner and Gracie Gold are in as they head to Hoffman Estates, Illinois, for this week's Skate America, the first of six events in the Grand Prix of Figure Skating.

Wagner performed one of her highest-scoring free skates ever, hitting five clean triple jumps and getting just small deductions for two under-rotated jumps in her triple-triple combinations. Gold fell on her triple lutz-triple toe combination and a triple loop, making other jumping mistakes along the way.

The result wasn't too surprising. In recent interviews, Wagner emphasized how hard she worked with coach Rafael Arutunian this offseason, focusing on refining her jump technique and strengthening her spins. Gold talked about taking some much-needed time off to recharge and refocus after a disappointing fourth-place finish at the 2016 World Figure Skating Championships.

"I essentially didn't skate the month of July, is what happened," Gold said in late August. "I think I was at Toyota (Sports Center) four days for the entire month."

As for Wagner, the world silver medalist thinks her free skate, choreographed with Shae-Lynn Bourne to "Exogenosis: Symphony Part 3" by Muse, has plenty of room to grow, especially on the program components (PCS) side.

"I was really happy with how Japan Open went," she said on a conference call last week. "It was so fresh in the season, and for me to go out and earn one of my highest scores while not being in total run-through shape was huge for me. I knew the PCS weren't going to be there for me. It was more of a run-through to get my jumps out under pressure."

The biggest threats to Wagner and Gold will likely come from Japan. Three-time world champion Mao Asada opened her season with a silver medal at Finlandia Trophy, where she did not attempt her trademark triple axel or a triple-triple combination. She may add more technical difficulty to her programs this week. Mai Mihara, who makes her Grand Prix debut at Skate America, landed seven clean triples to win Nebelhorn Trophy last month. Mariah Bell, winner of two international medals this fall, is the third U.S. ladies entrant and could surprise.

Shibutanis debut new programs

Judges see Maia Shibutani and Alex Shibutani for the first time this season Saturday, when the siblings hit the ice for their "That's Life" blues/hip-hop short dance. That's a shift from prior years, when the duo unveiled programs at Challenger Series events before their first Grand Prix. Last season, the U.S. champions and world silver medalists placed third at their 2015-16 season opener, the Ondrej Nepela Memorial, and really hit their stride later in their campaign.

"We really wanted to make sure these programs had time to develop to their fullest," Maia said, adding that they've received feedback from officials throughout the offseason. "Every time we've decided to work on something, we've improved it."

How fresh a statement do the Shibutanis want to make at Skate America? They haven't even announced their free dance music yet, although they've discussed the program's theme: "Evolution."

In contrast, 2010 Olympic champions Tessa Virtue and Scott Moir posted impressive scores to win the Autumn Classic International, while Anna Cappellini and Luca Lanotte of Italy, and Russian skaters Ekaterina Bobrova and Dmitri Soloviev also built momentum with early-season wins. U.S. silver medalists Madison Chock and Evan Bates have competed twice, and while the world bronze medalists placed second at both events, they gained feedback on their elements prior to their first Grand Prix, Skate Canada.

The Shibutanis avoided early-season jostling in favor of kicking off with a bang. 

"The opening competitions of the season are not just the first opportunities teams have to show new material -- they're also the first chances judges and technical panels have to see programs with new rules, different structures," Alex said. "We've found some of the earlier competitions can be very variable in terms of scores."

At Skate America, the siblings face Bobrova and Soloviev, who defeated Chock and Bates early this month, as well as U.S. bronze medalists Madison Hubbell and Zachary Donohue, winners of the U.S. International Figure Skating Classic in September and silver medalists at Finlandia Trophy a few weeks ago. Two-time U.S. junior bronze medalists Elliana Pogrebinsky and Alex Benoit will make their Grand Prix debut.

Brown, Rippon focus on quad toes

Reigning U.S. champion Adam Rippon and 2015 U.S. champion Jason Brown plan quadruple toe loops at Skate America, with Rippon trying the four-revolution jump in his free skate and Brown including it in both of his programs. Neither man has ever landed a fully clean quad in international competition.

This is a change in strategy for Rippon, who attempted the quad lutz at two early-season events. He last tried quad toe in competition at the 2013 NHK Trophy, where he landed it with step-outs in both his short program and free skate.

"Toe is what I've been focusing on; that's the quad I want to try at Skate America," he said. "I can't just throw it out there. I need to have those numbers in practice. The goal is to do quad toe in the free skate and hopefully add the (quad) lutz or another (quad) toe later in the season."

Brown has already tried quad toe four times this season: in his winning effort at the U.S. International Figure Skating Classic and at Lombardia Trophy, where he placed second to Japan's Shoma Uno.

"It's a journey and a step-by-step process," Brown said. "[Quad toe] is staying in the whole season. I'm not last minute pulling it out or debating it."

Rippon, Brown and U.S. teammate Timothy Dolensky -- who will try quad salchows in his programs -- are up against Uno, armed with quad flip and toe, and world bronze medalist Boyang Jin of China, who landed four quads (including lutz) in his free skate at the 2016 World Championships.

"It's not realistic for somebody like me to say, 'I'm going to do four quads at my next competition.' That's not my strength," Rippon said. "If you can't do four quads, you need to do the other elements as well as you can. You need to do the [program components] as well as you can."

"I agree with Adam in that you can't afford to automatically put yourself down," Brown said. "You can't push yourself physically past what you can do. No matter what other people are doing, you bring your best self to the event."

Although Jin and Uno have the edge in potential technical scores, it's not a foregone conclusion they will defeat the U.S. skaters this week. At Lombardia Trophy in September, Brown won the free skate over Uno despite the Japanese skater's impressive quad flip.

Top U.S. pairs juggle for position

U.S. pairs champions Tarah Kayne and Daniel O'Shea, bronze medalists Marissa Castelli and Mervin Tran, and 2015 U.S. silver medalists Haven Denney and Brandon Frazier all compete at Skate America. These three pairs could all land on the podium at the 2017 U.S. Figure Skating Championships.

Their early-season results were mixed. Denney and Frazier were mostly solid at Ondrej Nepela, ending up fourth behind three Russian pairs. Castelli and Tran had a strong short at the Autumn Classic but faltered on their jumps in the free skate and finished third. Kayne and O'Shea placed fifth at Finlandia after trouble with their throw triple lutz.

"Our first competition of the season is always a bit messy," Kayne said. "Usually we do that at some club competition in Florida, so people don't see it. This year we did it at Finlandia, and it wasn't what we wanted."

"We've had two weeks to work on the programs and fix things," O'Shea said. "We've decided to put the throw lutz earlier in the long program, to give us more of a fresh start with it."

Kayne and O' Shea's training time was limited in August and September due to tendinitis in Kayne's right knee (patella).

"We haven't been able to train for as long as we normally do this point in the season," O'Shea said. "If we are well trained, the elements are there. Finlandia wasn't good for us. It was really disappointing. We're looking forward to moving onwards."

Russians Evgenia Tarasova and Vladimir Morozov, fifth in the world last season, and Canadian silver medalists Julianne Séguin and Charlie Bilodeau are co-favorites for gold.